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13 Mar 2008 09:00
Zimbabwe’s crackdown on political dissent may need to be discussed by the United Nations Security Council, a prominent Southern African human rights activist declared this week.
Opponents of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party have reported large-scale harassment and intimidation in the tense period leading to elections due later this month.
With little prospect of the poll being conducted in a free and fair manner, political activists are calling on international bodies to explore new ways of applying pressure on Mugabe, the octogenarian who has led Zimbabwe ever since winning independence from Britain in 1980.
John Stewart, vice-chairperson of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, urged the European Union on Tuesday to consider invoking a clause relating to democratic principles in the Cotonou agreement, which underpins the bloc’s relations with Africa.
The Cotonou Agreement is a treaty between the EU and the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific states (ACP countries). It was signed in June 2000 in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin in West Africa, by 79 ACP countries and the then 15 EU member states.
In 2002, the EU decided to impose sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle—such as freezing their assets and banning them from travelling to Europe—after initiating a “political dialogue” under article 8 of that accord.
But Stewart argues that the EU should also study the possibility of invoking article 9 of Cotonou. This states that democracy should be built “on the basis of universally recognised principles” and that signatories, including Zimbabwe, should ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.
According to Stewart, the level of state-approved violence in Zimbabwe is now so serious that the EU’s military officials should be addressing it.
“I am not advocating sending a Belgian platoon to Mozambique’s border with Zimbabwe,” he said later in the week. “But this is an issue of peace and security. It needs to be talked about.”
Stewart, who was visiting Brussels, added that an analysis of the EU on Zimbabwe may lead to the country’s situation being discussed by the UN Security Council.
A day earlier, the EU’s foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concern that Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for March 29 were at risk of being unfair. The EU had received no invitation to monitor the poll’s conduct, the ministers observed.
Although Stewart said he was “glad” that Zimbabwe remained on the EU’s agenda, he argued that the ministers’ statement “misses the point”. It is futile, he suggested, for the EU to call for free and fair elections “when there is no question this is going to happen”.
Those wishing to observe the election have been told they need special permits from the government. Wilbert Mandine, a former magistrate now working for the Zimbabwean branch of the Media Institute for Southern Africa, noted that only one organisation has so far been permitted to monitor the poll.
Unless more permits are granted, nearly all of the 11Â 000 polling stations in the country are not likely to face any scrutiny, he added.
And although Zimbabwe has a law stating that the media should cover election campaigns fairly and impartially, Mandine alleged that television coverage is “tilted in favour of the ruling party”.
At the end of February, the launch of Zanu-PF’s manifesto could be seen live on the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation. Yet the opposition Movement for Democratic Change did not receive the same treatment when it formally began its campaign a day later.
Takavafina Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, was arrested and tortured when he took part in a “Save our Education” protest in Harare last month.
Labelling Mugabe a “crocodile liberator” and a “grasping kleptocrat”, he said: “We were promised paradise in 1980. What we have managed to get is a bullet in the head and a diet of starvation.”
Zhou accused the regime of operating a policy of “systematic torture” against teachers for about eight years. As a result, the number of teachers has shrunk from 150Â 000 to 70Â 000.
“Just last year, we lost 25Â 000 teachers and this year we have lost 8Â 000,” he said. “Of those that remain, they are 100% mentally resigned, although they physically remain in the classroom. That is a dangerous situation for any profession.”
While Zimbabwe used to be known as the breadbasket of Africa, its economy has declined dramatically over the past decade. Inflation has rocketed, unemployment has reached 80% of the workforce and 45% of the population is undernourished because of food shortages.
Maureen Kademaunga, a gender and human rights officer with the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union, said demonstrations by students have been brutally attacked. In one instance last month, a woman who was nine months pregnant was beaten up.
All universities in the country are now closed and are not due to reopen until after the elections. In effect, this has disenfranchised students, particularly those from rural areas who have returned to their families. Zimbabwe only allows people to vote in areas where they are registered, but Kademaunga said that poverty means students often cannot afford to travel.
Dewa Mavhinga, a human rights lawyer, argued that food aid, on which four million Zimbabweans (in a population of 12,5-million) are dependent, is being used as a political weapon. In rural areas, Zanu-PF has taken charge of food delivery and has been accused of denying vital supplies to those it views as opponents.
A spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s embassy in Brussels said he had taken note of the EU’s statement this week, but refused to comment further.—IPS
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